Dog-Walking Injuries: Finger Fractures, Traumatic Brain Injuries Among the Most Common

  • New research shows dog-walking injuries may be more common than many people think.
  • From 2001 to 2020, the estimated annual incidence of injuries related to dog walking quadrupled.
  • The most common dog walking-related injuries include finger fractures, traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), and shoulder strains or sprains.
dog on leash in city

Irina Polonina/Stocksy

More people are sustaining injuries while walking their dogs, new research shows. The findings suggest that dog-walking injuries may be more common than many people think, and that there’s a a need for more information on these types of incidents.

Finger fractures, traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), and shoulder strains or sprains were the three most common injuries associated with emergency room visits related to dog walking among U.S. adults from 2001 to 2020 according to the new study, published in April in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. Women and people over the age of 65 were the groups likeliest to sustain serious injuries.

“Dog ownership [has] increased significantly in recent years during the COVID-19 pandemic,” first study author Ridge Maxson, a third-year medical student at Johns Hopkins University, said in a news release. “Although dog walking is a common daily activity for many adults, few studies have characterized its injury burden. We saw a need for more comprehensive information about these kinds of incidents.”

Here’s what to know about injuries related to dog walking, and how to stay safe while walking your furry family members.

Common Injuries Associated With Dog Walking

For the study, researchers from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health used data from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, and found that an estimated 422,659 adults in the U.S. sought treatment at emergency rooms for injuries related to leash-dependent dog walking from 2001 to 2020.

Over that two-decade time period, researchers saw the estimated annual incidence of injuries related to dog walking quadruple—potentially due to increased dog ownership and dog walking as a way to be more active. There’s also the possibility that reporting on dog-walking injuries has improved in recent years.

“We suspect that this trend could be due to several factors, especially rising rates of dog ownership and promotion of dog walking as a form of daily exercise,” Maxson told Health. “Many adults are trying to find ways to be more active each day, and studies have shown that dog walking is a good way to do just that.”

Nearly half of all patients who sought treatment for dog-walking injuries were ages 40 to 64, and 75% of patients were women. Older dog walkers were more likely to sustain injuries compared to younger dog walkers—likely due to increased risks due to falling.

“Older people—and older women in particular—are more prone to fractures because of osteoporosis,” Maxson said. “There’s just more vulnerability if they fall.”

The three most common injuries related to dog walking were finger fractures, TBIs (concussions and nonconcussive internal head injuries) and shoulder sprains or strains. Hip fractures were also common in those ages 65 and older.

Researchers noted that most of the injuries were caused by falling after being pulled by, tangled in, or tripped by the dog’s leash.

“Although the leash serves as a vital link between the dog and the dog walker, it can put tension on the fingers and shoulder when a dog pulls ahead or quickly changes direction,” Maxson said. “The leash can also cause dog walkers to fall to the ground by getting pulled, tripped, or tangled in the leash.”

Reducing Your Risk of Dog-Walking Injuries

Simply being aware that you can get injured while walking your dog is important, according to Erin Joy Cavin Muckey, MD, assistant professor of emergency medicine and medical director of the emergency department at Rutgers Health University Hospital.

“We need to realize that some things and activities like dog walking that seem very benign carry with them some risk,” Dr. Muckey told Health. “Just be aware of that, and try not to be distracted with things like being on your cell phone while you’re walking your dog.”

Beyond that, there are a few more things you can do to make sure you’re being as safe as possible while walking your pup, said Kate Anderson, DVM, assistant clinical professor at the Cornell University Duffield Institute for Animal Behavior. She recommends following these tips:

  • Skip the retractable leash. “Instead use a short—6-foot—flat leash,” Anderson said. “Not only can retractable leashes contribute to injuries, they can make training your dog more difficult too.” Retractable leashes always have tension on the leash, and that can keep your dog from learning not to pull, she said. 
  • Get a harness or halter. “Use humane tools such as a front-attaching harness or a head halter,” Anderson said.
  • Consider obedience school. “Work with a qualified trainer for guidance on equipment and to teach your dog to walk on leash,” Anderson said. 
  • Avoid high traffic areas. At least, until you can get your dog well-trained. Anderson said this is particularly important if you know your dog is likely to lunge or pull around specific triggers like bikes, scooters, or other dogs.

If you’re struggling with controlling your dog on a leash, Anderson said it’s a good idea to avoid walks (if possible) until you can get them better trained. If you have a yard, that can mean playing ball in the grass instead of going for a long walk. If you live in an apartment, it may be a good idea to take your pet to your local dog run as much as possible instead of going on walks. Doing things like food puzzle toys at home can also help burn off energy, she said.

It also doesn’t hurt to rope in your dog’s vet if walks with your pet seem risky. “Discuss the behavior with your family veterinarian,” Anderson said. “They can help determine the possible causes, rate the severity, and rule out any potential medical causes. If appropriate, they can then refer you to a qualified trainer or a veterinary behaviorist if needed.”

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  1. Maxson R, Leland CR, McFarland EG, Lu J, Meshram P, Jones VC. Epidemiology of dog walking-related injuries among adults presenting to U.S. emergency departments, 2001-2020. Med Sci Sports Exerc. Published online April 14, 2023. doi:10.1249/MSS.0000000000003184

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